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The 30 best summer blockbusters ever

TONY ranks the biggest fun machines of all time: the movies designed for maximum impact.

1/5

Summer blockbusters: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

2/5

Summer blockbusters: Ghostbusters (1984)

3/5

Summer blockbusters: Star Wars (1977)

4/5

Summer blockbusters: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

5/5

Summer blockbusters: Jaws (1975)

Blast the AC and fire up the flat screen; sometimes a cool couch is better than a sweltering ticket holders’ line. Still, the rite of the summer blockbuster is burned into our brains, especially for this generation of moviegoers. These are the films meant purely to entertain, designed for the dog days of vacation and evenings after the beach. They also boast some of Hollywood’s most talented directors (maybe you can guess a couple of these baseball-capped moguls beforehand). In arriving at our ranked list, we set a few parameters: All films had to be released between May and August—sorry, Titanic fans. All had to have grossed at least $100 million globally (seriously thinning the herd). And all had to be intended as high-stakes entertainments, not accidental “sleeper” hits like The Blair Witch Project. So read on. We expect huge receipts from this project. And let us know if we forgot your favorite.

Independence Day (1996)

The trailer gave us the money shot: a blue death ray decimating the White House from above. It’s a hard image to top, and director Roland Emmerich’s been remaking it ever since. Whatever the real-life tragedies, audiences still get a giddy thrill seeing familiar landmarks reduced to ash and splinters onscreen.—Keith Uhlich

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Armageddon (1998)

Go ahead and laugh, but no summer list would be complete without a little Bayhem. This was the movie that set the mold for the future Transformers director. Michael Bay’s appetite for blithe destruction on a mammoth scale (the meteoric flattening of Shanghai, midtown NYC and Paris) signaled a new, trashy aesthetic that audiences would come to crave.—Joshua Rothkopf

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X-Men (2000)

Bryan Singer’s take on Marvel’s popular mutant team kicked off a renaissance of complex comic-book movies: You mean superheroes could function as social metaphors? We now get a slate of straight-faced men-in-tights movies every summer—and proof that serious and sophisticated can still be remarkably fun.—David Fear

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Back to the Future (1985)

Its beautifully inventive script took five years to develop; even when it got off the ground, original leading man Eric Stoltz was deemed miscast, scrapping a month of shooting. Enter Michael J. Fox (juggling his TV work on Family Ties) and a franchise was born. This was actual science fiction, the complex plot navigated by an ace cast (and a DeLorean).—Joshua Rothkopf

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The Dark Knight (2008)

Whether you consider this the Citizen Kane of costumed-crimefighter films or a self-important mess, you can’t help but be impressed at how Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster sold a grim bill of goods to a mass audience. Not even Tim Burton went this somber or deep; the result was both an unusual popular hit and, thanks to Heath Ledger’s morbid, prerelease death buzz, an Oscar-winning prestige picture.—David Fear

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WALL-E (2008)

It came from the house that Toy Story built, yet neither Pixar nor Disney had ever released anything so perversely postapocalyptic: A quirky robot cleans up a ruined, abandoned Mother Earth. The film’s critical and commercial success helped sell the notion that pop animation could be more than just princesses and fart jokes.—David Fear

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Star Trek (2009)

It’s easy to lose sight of how daunting the task must have seemed: Relaunch the most beloved sci-fi property of all time—and without benefit of the original cast. J.J. Abrams’s dazzling stunner elicited rueful smiles from even the most committed Trekkie, while returning playful banter to the Bridge via its Obama-era yes-we-can crew. Warp speed was never faster.—Joshua Rothkopf

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In the Line of Fire (1993)

Clint Eastwood showed that even the AARP-eligible could chase down bad guys, in this box-office smash about a Secret Service agent pursuing John Malkovich’s would-be presidential assassin. And just as 1992’s Unforgiven tweaked his Western persona, Fire offered the sight of a slightly left-of-center Dirty Harry—a more fragile and world-weary marauder.—Keith Uhlich

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Gremlins (1984)

You remember the rules, right? No bright light. No water. And no food after midnight. But what would a summer blockbuster be without broken rules? Subtly, Joe Dante’s horror-comedy parodied the very idea of Hollywood toy manufacturing, especially after its adorable mogwais go rogue. Indeed, the violent film may have been too dark: Only a month after its release, the PG-13 rating was introduced.—Joshua Rothkopf

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Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

Knives were out for the first tent-pole movie based on...a Disney theme-park ride. But even snobs couldn’t deny a truly subversive central performance by Johnny Depp: one part Adam Ant, one part Keith Richards and four parts rum. Omnisexual and winningly verbal, Depp’s creation put a spin on big, dumb fun that even he hasn’t matched.—Joshua Rothkopf

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Gladiator (2000)

No one brings the huge like Ridley Scott, recapturing the grandeur of his earlier landmarks Alien and Blade Runner with this massive-feeling Roman-era epic. Computerized tigers and Russell Crowe cemented the appeal, leading to an unusual Best Picture Oscar for a summer blockbuster. Are you not entertained? Maximus’s question was moot.—Joshua Rothkopf

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Batman (1989)

No need to look to the skies for the Bat Signal; it was ubiquitous long before Tim Burton’s gothic reimagining of the pointy-eared avenger hit theaters. This movie is ground zero for the golden age of mass-marketing branding; by opening weekend, that inescapable black-and-yellow icon had just as much marquee value as the film’s stars.—David Fear

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Animal House (1978)

This Rosetta stone of raunchy comedies turned gross-out laughfests into a cottage industry, establishing a surefire-success template: gonzo humor plus profanity and nudity equals a hit. Everybody from Judd Apatow’s beta males to the Frat Pack’s spastics can thank this monument to men behaving badly for their careers.—David Fear

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Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

Director Alfonso Cuarn (later of Children of Men) made the third installment of J.K. Rowling’s fantasy series his own by not slavishly following the text. The result was the first film in the franchise to truly connect the magical goings-on to the characters’ growing pains—and a model for book-to-movie adaptations to come.—Keith Uhlich

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The Truman Show (1998)

Jim Carrey traded his usual make-’em-laugh mania for introspective aw-shucksiness as a man unknowingly living his life on TV. This lighthearted (though still scathing) media satire is the bridge between Ace Ventura and Eternal Sunshine. Audiences flocked and gave Carrey license to further stretch his dramatic chops.—Keith Uhlich

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Total Recall (1990)

The standard Schwarzenegger action vehicle got the Paul Verhoeven treatment, which meant trashy excess and three-titted-whore perversity. But it also let the future Governator show off a softer, vulnerable side without forgoing the expected quotable kiss-offs (“Screw you!”). The man best known for playing a robot had rarely seemed so human.—Keith Uhlich

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Die Hard (1988)

The concept is so simple, it’s genius: Place your hero in a half-empty office building, moving upward through levels as if it were a video game. Blow much shit up. John McTiernan’s airtight action-adventure established Bruce Willis as a he-man star and perfected a formula; every time a movie gets described as “Die Hard on a bus,” etc., you’re reminded that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.—David Fear

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Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

Robert Zemeckis’s comic-book noir—featuring a fedora-clad detective (Bob Hoskins) running around ’40s L.A. with a cartoon rabbit—is a benchmark for convincingly mixing live-action with animation. It anticipated the many CGI-hybrid blockbusters that we’re now inundated with, though the bulk of the work was, incredibly, done by hand. Pure magic.—Keith Uhlich

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Jurassic Park (1993)

Dinosaurs walk the earth in Steven Spielberg’s megahit, which gives us a nice helping of awe before a T. Rex has its bloody way with a goat. It’s a deft mix of animatronics and CGI, a perfect blockbuster. That Spielberg made this and Schindler’s List within the same year is still impressive.—Keith Uhlich

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The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

Underrated for its political daring, this dynamic third installment of Matt Damon’s amnesiac-spy saga returned Jason Bourne to Manhattan, to confront his spook superiors about their illegal operations. Director Paul Greengrass was just coming off United 93; in many ways, this was its fictional counterpart, equally timely and suffused with rage.—Joshua Rothkopf

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Aliens (1986)

James Cameron? Sure—he was the kid who had just turned Conan into a cyborg with 1984’s The Terminator. But could Hollywood entrust the whippersnapper with one of the most anticipated follow-ups in sci-fi history? Sigourney Weaver was won over by the director’s passion for making the mother of all monster movies; embedded in his futuristic war film’s DNA was also an antimilitary critique and a strongly feminist statement about self-sufficiency. A tense shoot and last-minute editing didn’t help buzz. But Cameron was already setting the template for all of his subsequent risks: Double down on your own confidence and let doubters be damned.—Joshua Rothkopf

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Face/Off (1997)

It must be the most ridiculous concept Hollywood ever threw money at: Have our hero and villain surgically swap faces. (Never mind the how-tos.) As a literalization of action-movie psychology, the plot still gets giggles in theaters, and not just from medical professionals. Still, no summer movie was blessed with a more committed cast and crew. One leading man, Nicolas Cage, was just coming off a Best Actor win for Leaving Las Vegas; the other, John Travolta, was only recently rebounding as a mouthy, zesty star. Both studied the other’s mannerisms, allowing for plenty of self-parody and stretching. Still, the triumph belonged to Hong Kong transplant John Woo, finally in command of all his powers and gifts. He never topped this.—Joshua Rothkopf

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Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

He said he’d be back. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s time-traveling, mechanized killer returns as a good guy, ready to serve and protect future warrior John Connor (Edward Furlong) from a liquid-metal assassin (Robert Patrick). Director James Cameron continued to push the limits of CGI technology with Patrick’s T-1000—he’s the water snake in The Abyss made spike-through-the-eye deadly. And Arnie gets to stretch some of those emotional muscles he worked in Total Recall with the boy-and-his-dog relationship between him and Furlong. This blockbuster still works best when Cameron lets his cybernetic creations whale on each other and anything in their way.—Keith Uhlich

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The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

The reveal to end all reveals (“I am your father!”) is just the cherry on top of the darkest of the six Star Wars movies. This installment of the adventures of Luke, Han, Leia et al. takes on a tragic grandeur that the other chapters never quite attain: There’s melancholy in every frame, from the unforgiving icy landscapes of Hoth to the swampy murk of Dagobah. And the ending, with the characters scattered and the future uncertain, is devastating. Empire never pulls its punches, which is pretty impressive given that this was easily the most anticipated sequel of all time.—Keith Uhlich

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Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)

Trust the king of populist muckraking, Michael Moore, to make the first documentary to achieve bona fide blockbuster status. It helped, of course, that he’d chosen to tackle hot-button topics—George W. Bush, the nebulous War on Terror, “Mission Accomplished”—at the exact moment that our divisive commander-in-chief was campaigning for a second term. The blustery filmmaker tapped into a growing anger on both sides of the partisan fence, expanding the political debate into multiplexes across the country. It became required viewing for anyone who wanted to weigh in on current affairs—and, in the process, whetted the public appetite for nonfiction movies.—David Fear

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E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

After being left behind on Earth, a diminutive alien visitor (a triumph of animatronic effects work by Carlo Rambaldi) befriends young suburbanite Elliott (Henry Thomas). They’re both damaged beings—E.T.’s abandonment mirrors Elliott’s pain over his parents’ divorce—who learn to cope with their respective situations even as they look helplessly to the skies and, in the most iconic image, fly gracefully past the moon. E.T. is one of Steven Spielberg’s most personal works, yet was still a border-defying blockbuster—the highest grosser of all time until Jurassic Park supplanted it.—Keith Uhlich

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Ghostbusters (1984)

“Don’t cross the streams!” is sound advice if you’re operating a plasma gun. Ironically, that’s exactly what Ivan Reitman did with this blockbuster, mixing SNL’s snarkiness, horror-lite spookiness and the breakneck pacing of an action flick. (Having Bill Murray, an instantly iconic logo and Ray Parker Jr.’s infectiously catchy theme song didn’t hurt either.) This monster hit broke the bank by demonstrating that mashing up popular genres equaled a something-for-everybody box office bonanza. Every big-budget sci-fi-action comedy that’s goosed multiplex audiences owes this movie a mother-pus-bucket of a debt.—David Fear

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Star Wars (1977)

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, people didn’t make pop-cultural touchstones from cannibalized bits of Kurosawa, Joseph Campbell and Flash Gordon. In fact, when George Lucas screened a rough cut of his pulpy cosmic adventure for his film-brat peers, they offered better-luck-next-time condolences. (One person did congratulate him: Steven Spielberg.) When Star Wars finally came out right before Memorial Day, 1977, those same directors watched their bearded buddy reroute Hollywood for the next few decades. Suddenly, space was the place, a movie’s merchandising was enormously important, and the era of the global blockbuster went into interstellar overdrive.—David Fear

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Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Is there a more purely perfect action hero in all of adventure flickdom than Indiana Jones? (Tom Selleck must still be kicking himself for turning down the role.) Even if audiences knew nothing from the cliff-hanger serials from the 1930s and ’40s—the original inspirations—they did know about Nazis, biblical wrath and snakes. Lots of snakes. Furiously propulsive, Raiders is a triumph of cutting and craft, with composer John Williams having an especially good day in front of the orchestra. But the prime movers behind the project were producer George Lucas, a key creative collaborator, and director Steven Spielberg, brilliant with actors and redemptive moments of humor. If the boy geniuses had indeed won over Hollywood, this movie forecasted a benevolent kingdom.—Joshua Rothkopf

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Jaws (1975)

Imagine a mammoth, sharp-toothed creature that takes cold-eyed pleasure in terrorizing its victims—one that must move forward constantly or perish, that quietly circles its prey before attacking with lightning speed. Now imagine a shark. Given the way that Steven Spielberg’s nail-biter goes after audience’s nervous systems, the film’s resemblance to its leviathan isn’t coincidental: Multiplex thrill rides had never seemed so ruthlessly, efficiently predatory. This was the game-changer, the first to employ a “wide-release” strategy, the first to gross more than $100 million, the moment when this director became “Steven Spielberg,” the template for the must-see modern summer movie. After Jaws, every moviemaker who wanted to leave viewers giddy and gasping knew they’d need a bigger boat.—David Fear

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Comments

2 comments
Lars T
Lars T

Who is calling or has ever called the Dark Knight a self important mess? That's like a throw away line about how you believe 9/11 was an inside job. Speaking of, I thought this was a list of the "biggest fun machines" ever, and Farenheit 9/11 was number 6. Why is a documentary about one of the worst days in American history and the corruption of our government on a list of summer fun movies? It's like you assembled a list of your favorite mammals and one of David Fear's choices was the color green.

Gabriel
Gabriel

Where is Harry Potter- Deathly Hallows Part 2? IT WAS SOOO EPIC :)